Madeline Bartos | Staff Writer
Helen Bohr and Jane Ann Byerly — the always-smiling ladies at Cinco Cantina — have worked at Duquesne for a combined total of nearly a century. “Every year we’re going to retire, but then every year we stay,” Jane Ann said with a laugh.
When asked what’s the best part of working at Duquesne for almost 50 years each, they both said without hesitation “The students.” They have their favorites, too. “There are people who leave an impression on you, you remember them,” Jane Ann said.
Helen, who turns 85 on Nov. 9, and Jane Ann, who turns 84 on Nov. 8, both came to Duquesne months apart from each other in 1969. When Helen heard about a job opening in Duquesne’s food services, she went for the position and got the job right away. Jane Ann started her job at Duquesne as a waitress and a floater making $2.89 an hour. The food service ladies were called the “Pink Ladies” because of their pink dresses and white aprons, shoes and stockings. At one point, Jane Ann even worked as a bartender down at Incline — which she and Helen both still call the Ratskeller — and served drinks to professors during happy hour.
Before the fifth floor of the Union was Cinco Cantina and Chick-Fil-A, it was Options, and before that — well, Helen and Jane Ann can’t remember if it was ever anything else. For years, they each worked around 40 hours a week, each. The fifth floor of the Union has begun to close earlier on Fridays, so now they work about 30 hours a week, standing the whole time.
“I think we’ve done our job,” Jane Ann said. “We never got in trouble,” Helen added.
After Helen gets off work on Fridays, she always goes country dancing, where she can move her legs after a week of standing. “When you get old, the first thing that goes are your legs,” she said.
On the weekends and over school breaks, Jane Ann plays bingo and cards; she said she loves to gamble.
The pair both admit that while names aren’t their strong suit, they never forget faces. “It’s funny if you’re out, and you’re in the grocery store or you’re at a game or something,” Jane Ann said. “The students won’t remember our name, but they yell ‘Duquesne!’ And I don’t remember their names, but I look at their faces and I know them.”
“I tell the students, ‘don’t tell me your name,’” Helen said. “I never remember it.”
Each of them has almost fifty years of stories to tell about Duquesne, but they’ve only ever gone on strike once. It was during one of those classic Western Pennsylvania snow storms that infamously arrive mid-April that the food service employees found themselves outside, drinking coffee the police officers would bring them, and stopping delivery trucks.
One brave soul tried to illegally stop a mail truck and Helen, mistaken for the employee, was blamed for the incident. The strike didn’t last much longer until Father Nesti, the president of the university at the time, put an end to it. “He said to the food service, ‘get them women off the streets and back to work,’ and that’s how it was settled,” Jane Ann said.
Jane Ann also told the story of how she was held at gunpoint one night on Halloween. She was working on the sixth floor of the Union when she opened the stairwell door and found a man wearing a ski mask. Jane Ann thought the man was trick or treating, until he pointed a gun at her and told her to get into the freezer.
“I said ‘oh no, no I’ll die,’” Jane Ann recalled, and instead offered to put herself in the cupboard, and stayed there until he left. The burglar didn’t take any money with him, though. Jane Ann doesn’t know why — maybe he expected the floor to be empty and she surprised him — but she said it had to be an inside job, since all the doors were locked off to the public.
Helen and Jane Ann seen four different food service companies at Duquesne, five decades of graduating classes and countless changes on campus. But there are some things that haven’t changed since 1969. Helen and Jane Ann still work together in food services and they still love their jobs, the students and each other. “We’re like sisters,” Helen said. “We fight, but we get over it,” Jane Ann agreed.
Jane Ann lost her husband when she was 49. Her daughter, Debbie, works at Duquesne as well, over in Hogan, and Jane Ann’s daughter-in-law, also Debbie, is the supervisor at Cinco Cantina. “This job kept me going. Thank God I had this job,” Jane Ann said. “Keeps us busy,” said Helen.
Parkhurst’s contract is up in 2019, but Helen and Jane Ann, who are on the top of the Union’s seniority list, hopefully won’t be going anywhere. As Jane Ann said: “They come and they go, and we’re still here.”